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With New Congressional Majority, Should Democrats Focus on Domestic Agenda as Bush Escalates Iraq War?

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With the opening day of the 110th Congress, Democrats took control of the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years. They’ve outlined an ambitious domestic agenda for their first 100 hours in power, including raising the minimum wage and negotiating lower prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients. Peace activists are criticizing the Democrats for not focusing on Iraq amid the Bush administration’s plans for a troop surge. We host a debate between peace mom Cindy Sheehan and Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Washington, Nancy Pelosi was elected Thursday to be the country’s first female speaker of the House as the Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in a dozen years. In the Senate, Harry Reid was elected majority leader. Shortly after becoming speaker, Pelosi addressed the full House.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: It’s an historic moment for the Congress. It’s an historic moment for the women of America. It is a moment for which we have waited over 200 years. Never losing faith, we waited through the many years of struggle to achieve our rights. But women weren’t just waiting; women were working. Never losing faith, we worked to redeem the promise of America, that all men and women are created equal. For our daughters and our granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. For our daughters and our granddaughters now, the sky is the limit. Anything is possible for them.

The election of 2006 was a call to change, not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country. Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in the war in Iraq. The American people rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end. Shortly, President Bush will address the nation on the subject of Iraq. It is the responsibility of the president to articulate a new plan for Iraq that makes it clear to the Iraqis that they must defend their own streets and their own security, a plan that promotes stability in the region and a plan that allows us to responsibly redeploy our troops.

AMY GOODMAN: Hours after the Democrats took control, the House passed what The Washington Post described as the broadest ethics lobbying revision since the Watergate era. House members or employees are now prohibited from knowingly accepting gifts or travel from a lobbyist, foreign agent or lobbyist client. Lawmakers can no longer fly on corporate jets. The Ethics Committee must now pre-approve any congressional finance by outside groups, and all such trips will be immediately disclosed to the public. A correction on our headlines: Only Republican Dan Burton of Indiana voted against the measure.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The ethics rule changes are part of Pelosi’s ambitious plan for the Democrats’ first 100 hours in power. She also wants to increase the minimum wage, allow the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients and increase federal support for stem cell research. But Pelosi’s 100 hours plan has also come under criticism by antiwar activists for not focusing on Iraq. On Wednesday, Cindy Sheehan and others disrupted a press conference by Rahm Emanuel, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

AMY GOODMAN: As soon as Congressmember Emanuel began speaking, the activists started chanting, “De-escalate! Investigate! Troops home now!” Because of the protest, Emanuel abruptly postponed the news conference. He left the podium. Cindy Sheehan took over the microphone.

CINDY SHEEHAN: Our leaders who get us into these messes are the ones who need to be held accountable. And if that happens, then maybe my grandchildren won’t have to be fighting an illegal and immoral war.

AMY GOODMAN: Cindy Sheehan joins us now from Washington, D.C., to talk more about the Democrats’ first 100 hours in power. Co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, Cindy Sheehan’s son Casey was killed April 4, 2004, in Iraq. Next to Cindy is Roger Hickey. He is the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. His organization is part of the Change America Now Coalition, a national campaign effort pushing Congress to pass the economic elements of Pelosi’s 100-hour legislative agenda. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Cindy Sheehan, let’s begin with you. Can you describe further what happened on Wednesday, who was with you and why you interrupted a Democrat’s news conference, Rahm Emanuel?

CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, we had about 80 activists from all over the country join Gold Star Families for Peace in our Walk for Change. We wanted the Democrats to know that we’re not going away, that we are going to hold their feet to the fire as much as we did the Republicans, and that the most important item on an agenda for our country is to bring the troops home.

George Bush is going to set out a plan in a few days, you know, coming up soon, and we know that it’s going to be a bad plan. Everything single thing he’s done since the invasion — well, and including the invasion — have been disorder. It’s been totally wrong. It’s been wrong for America. My son is dead because of it. And the Democrats should not be waiting for George Bush to articulate his plan, because they know it’s going to be a bad plan, and they know it’s probably going to include an escalation of troops.

The Democrats need to have a plan. They need to have the courage and the strength and the integrity to know that George Bush cannot fix this mess that he has gotten our country into. The Democratic Congress is going to have to be the ones to fix the mess. And they’re going to have to have the strength, and they have to know that the peace movement is solidly behind them, almost three-quarters of the country are behind them, and that we need a higher minimum wage, we need universal healthcare, we need lower interest rates on college loans.

And that will help my family. Everybody in my family will benefit from the Democrats’ social plan, but where are they coming up with the money? Our country is spending $10 million an hour in Iraq. We can’t afford to borrow any more money from China. We can’t afford it. My great-grandchildren will be paying this debt off.

And just as important as bringing the troops home is to hold George Bush accountable for this. We just buried Gerald Ford, and everybody said, “Oh, he healed the nation during Watergate.” Well, if he had healed the nation, Casey would still be alive. If Richard Nixon had paid for his war crimes and crimes against humanity, maybe George Bush wouldn’t think he is above the law, and maybe he wouldn’t have gotten our country into another illegal and immoral war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future, what about this issue that the war was the overriding issue in the recent election, but in her plan, her ambitious plan, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are leaving the war issue aside and concentrating more on the economic questions?

ROGER HICKEY: Well, I agree with Cindy that this election was driven by the American people’s rejection of the war in Iraq and of George Bush’s policies. There was a parallel rejection of his domestic policies and the policies that have hurt the people in their pocketbooks —- just bread-and-butter issues. But she’s also right, the Democrats, as a caucus, have much more of a consensus around these domestic issues -—

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Hickey, we have to fix your microphone. We’re going to go to an early break, and then we’ll come back to this discussion. Roger Hickey is co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. Cindy Sheehan with us. Her son was killed in Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about the war in Iraq, there were banner drops in Washington, D.C. One of the major banner drops was one that said, “We will not be silent.” And we are showing the images of that banner drop at our website at democracynow.org. Our guests are Cindy Sheehan. Her son Casey was killed in Iraq. She is one of the founders of Gold Star Families for Peace. Our other guest is a Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future.

Cindy Sheehan, respond to what Roger Hickey said about the economic concerns in this first 100 hours of Congress. Do you oppose them?

CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, I said that I think that, you know, those are very important. George Bush has driven our country into the ground. Our communities are reeling from the effects of his policies, and our children are joining the military because they don’t have any other options. They want to get out of their communities. They want a college education. They think they’re being trained for jobs. But if we don’t have an active hot war going on, we can actually afford some of these economic changes and the policies that the Democrats are going to be working on.

But as we’re sitting here, people are dying. You know, soldiers are losing their lives. Families are being devastated. Nancy Pelosi was carrying one of her grandchildren when she was sworn in yesterday. This is about life and death. I’ve been saying all along that, to me, this is not a partisan issue. War and peace transcends politics. Accountability transcends politics. And people — we need to realize that it’s human beings that are being destroyed in Iraq. And our soldiers, if they come home alive, they’re not coming home whole. Just look what happened to Suzanne Swift. So this is the most important issue, and the Democrats have to have the courage to solve it. And if they need us walking side by side with them, we will be there to help them solve this problem.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Roger Hickey, what are the challenges now that the Democrats face in dealing with the issue of the war?

ROGER HICKEY: Well, the challenge is that they need to live up to the mandate that the American people gave them. Some of the leaders and some of the rank and file of the Democratic Party understand that very clearly, and they are going to be working as soon as they can, as quickly as they can, to hold hearings and to criticize the president’s soon-to-be-announced policy. We all know what that is. It’s going to be a surge of more Americans sent into Iraq. And so, some of the Democratic caucus understands their mandate from the American people very well.

Some are ducking. And to the extent that Nancy Pelosi can move her caucus forward, it’s got to be in criticism of the war in Iraq. There has been great progress, I must say, but the Democrats are not as united as they should be in articulating a critique or taking action to stop the policies of George Bush. In the meantime, if they succeed in this first 100 hours, I think that helps their unity, helps their feelings of self-confidence, and helps them understand that they’ve got to be responsive to MoveOn and all the other groups that are helping us with these domestic issues on our demands on the war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the Republicans also are not united necessarily on how to deal with the war itself. Obviously, Senator McCain has staked out a much more hawkish position on the war than even some of his other fellow Republicans. How will that play out in terms of how the Democrats in Congress attempt to work out a consensus or majority view on how to deal and how to hold the president accountable?

ROGER HICKEY: Well, most Democrats I know think that McCain is really off the charts in terms of what’s politically acceptable in America today. They think it’s a bad strategy, even for a Republican, and there are Republicans, like Senator Gordon Smith and others, who are very much off the consensus. Republicans are literally running for cover, and some of them are very bravely coming out against the war. So, the Republicans are not at all united in support of George Bush, and that should give the Democrats more courage to step up and criticize the war.

This is a very fluid time right now, in which all Americans ought to be saying, “Yes, we want progress” on the things that our CAN coalition are talking about — minimum wage and healthcare and energy prices and alternatives, student loans — but we also want action and a clear voice from the Democrats on the war in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. Cindy Sheehan is heading to Guantanamo tonight as part of a delegation. Cindy Sheehan, on the issue of detainees at places like Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, what about this issue? You’ve got, for example, one of the last votes of the last Congress was around stripping habeas corpus of prisoners.


AMY GOODMAN: One of the most progressive senators now, newly elected Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown voted for that bill, although he says he would be interested in the habeas corpus being restored, though he said he would not be the sponsor of that. Why are you going to Guantanamo? Talk about this.

CINDY SHEEHAN: Obviously, we’re going to Guantanamo to raise awareness of what’s going on. There was also an article that just came out about the FBI visiting there and the atrocities that the FBI witnessed and that they’re speaking out against these crimes against humanity.

And one thing that Roger was saying, the Democrats can criticize the president about his war and about torture, they can criticize and hold hearings from here until the second coming, and that’s not going to do one bit of good. George Bush, for worse and worser, is our commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. As long as he has money to wage the war, he can send 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 more troops over there. Congress had to pull the plug on the funding, because when Congress funds the war, they fund torture, they fund places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. And Congress has to do their constitutional duty of pulling the plug on the money for this war. Criticism and holding hearings is not going to help.

And while they’re criticizing and holding hearings, people are being tortured in our names, people are being killed in our names. There’s crimes against humanity and against peace being committed in Iraq and around the world every day, because George Bush has the money to do it. Congress needs to pull the plug on that.

And Congress needs to be — like I’ve said over and over and over again, this Democratic Congress — I have the confidence they can solve the problem, but they have to work together and solve it. And they have to work across the aisle with the Republicans who are also expressing doubt. You know, when we say 75 percent of Americans disagree with George Bush and his policies, that is Republicans, that’s Democrats, that’s old people and young people, that’s across the entire spectrum of demographics in this country.

So, I don’t understand what the Democrats are waiting for, because George Bush is going to escalate this conflict, and we know that means escalated deaths. And they can sit in their offices, and they can do all of the bitching and moaning that they want, and that’s not bringing the troops home, and that’s not stopping what’s going on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Cindy Sheehan, how have the members of the Democrats in Congress reacted to your persistent and high-profile events that you have had and protests that you have had, given the reality that you have helped obviously to galvanize the peace movement around the country now for a couple of years?

CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, on the day that we went to Congress and we disrupted Rahm Emanuel, and I think Heny Stoyer [sic] was there, too, or — did I say his name right? That didn’t sound right. Anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: Steny Hoyer.

CINDY SHEEHAN: Steny Hoyer, thank you. We were a little concerned, because the peace movement has not — the grassroots peace movement has not been reached out to to be a participant in what’s going on, even though we’re a great part of why they’re back in power. And Rahm Emanuel worked against every pro-peace candidate — Democratic candidate that put themselves forth to work against the war and against George Bush and his policies. So I think that they need to also wake up and smell the coffee and include the grassroots peace movement in the talks.

We have a meeting every three weeks in Congress, and we invite every congressmember and every staff member to this Out of Iraq coalition of people who meet. Obviously, I’m not there every three weeks, because I don’t live here. And they don’t come, just with the exception of very few good congress people that we have been working with for years. They don’t send even staff members. So we need to work together, and we need to realize that we just don’t elect these people to go to Congress and then we forget about them anymore, that we are going to be the thorn in their sides, and we’re going to be their gadflies. And we want to work with them, if they will work with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Cindy Sheehan, just some of the headlines today around the world. The India Daily says, “Can peace activist Cindy Sheehan rescue Democrats from oligarchs?” Fox saying, “Cindy Sheehan is the Democrats’ problem now.” You mentioned the cutting off appropriations, cutting off the funding of the war. It’s something the presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, the congress member from Ohio, has also said. But that’s off the table for Nancy Pelosi.

CINDY SHEEHAN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: But that’s off the table for Nancy Pelosi.

CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, she needs to put it back on the table, because that’s the only thing that’s going to stop George Bush. And there was a court case in 1999, Supreme Court — it was Campbell v. Clinton — and it was Democratic congresspeople who were suing Bill Clinton to stop what was going on in Bosnia. And the Supreme Court said you cannot vote for funding for the war and say you’re in opposition to it. If you give a president funding for the war, you are giving the president explicit approval to wage this war. So we’re going to have to start telling these Democrats, if you vote yes on more funding, then you are in support of the war. You cannot say you’re against the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Hickey, do you think it was a mistake for, in this first 100 hours, in the program that’s being put out everywhere all over the country, for there not to be a discussion of Iraq war, considering, I think it’s the consensus across the political spectrum, that that’s what turned the tide in November for the Democrats?

ROGER HICKEY: Well, I’m not a representative of the Democratic Party. We had to push them on every one of these items that they are now fighting for in the Congress. And Cindy is absolutely right that many of the antiwar candidates got elected despite the support — or the lack of support of the Democratic Party.

I wish there was more of a consensus among the Democrats that the war should be front and center on their agenda. But they are focusing on what they can do in the first 100 days, and unfortunately not enough Democrats think that they can legislatively take action in the next 100 days — next 100 hours, I’m sorry — legislatively, but I wouldn’t discount more and more Democrats coming to the fore and saying, “We want our party to be opposed to this war,” explicitly and clearly. And that’s part of the process in the next period.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How critical, for your Campaign for America’s Future, is the resources that are being spent on this war that could be spent on some of the issues that are at the forefront of your efforts?

ROGER HICKEY: I think all of the groups involved in the CAN coalition, including MoveOn and USAction and all of the various organizations that are working to pass these initial first 100 hour pieces of legislation, understand that the war has been a disaster for the funding of domestic priorities. And we also understand that until we get a control over these misguided military policies, we’re not going to be able to make significant progress in any one of these areas. So they are very, very closely linked, and many of the groups involved, like MoveOn and Working Assets and the various other groups that are communicating with Congress right now, are also communicating with Congress to have a backbone on the war. So they are very, very closely linked, and this is part of the challenge to the Democratic Party that we’ve got to lead in the next period.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Roger Hickey and Cindy Sheehan, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, and Cindy Sheehan, one of the founders of Gold Star Families for Peace, also with CodePink. She heads to Guantanamo tonight.

We’re going to end out in the streets of Washington, D.C. We’ll see if there are more actions like this. Yesterday, all over Washington, D.C., there were actions. This is Caroline Parker of Artists Against the War.

CAROLINE PARKER: My name is Caroline Parker. I’m here down in D.C. on January 4th, the first day of the new Congress, to demand accountability for a U.S. policy of war, a U.S. policy of illegal detentions, a U.S. policy of torture. What we’re doing here today is we’re going into the Senate building, and we’re going to drop 30-by-10-foot banners that say, “War, torture, lies! We will not be silent.” We have worked for the past three days with a number of different artist activists painting these humongous banners, and we will not be silent.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

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